History Boys
5 min

The 25 bits of gay history you won’t believe

The History Boys’ strangest and most fascinating gay facts

Illustration by Yigi Chang

Delving into the sordid bedsheets of history week after week, the History Boys have come across stories that would make even the most liberal historian blush. Today, we celebrate three years of History Boys with a look at some of the most fascinating tidbits of gay history. 

Illustration by Jori Bolton

1.  Between 1950 and 1980, a man in the British Merchant Navy surreptitiously ducking under another man’s sheets and blowing him was a common enough occurrence that there was a slang term for these sailors: “phantom gobblers.”

Illustration by Jori Bolton

2.  Kitty Genovese, whose 1964 murder in New York City — it is generally (and wrongly) thought that none of the many witnesses bothered to help — provided impetus for research into “bystander effect,” lived with her female lover at the time of her death.

 
 

Illustration by Sissydude

3.  Ronnie and Reggie Kray, twin brothers who ran London’s criminal underworld in the 1950s and ’60s, both slept with other men.

Illustration by Sissydude

4.  The creator of the Wonder Woman comics had a long-term polyamorous relationship with two women — one of those women was  Olive Byrne, whose mother and aunt had opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916.

Illustration by Eric Williams

5.  Toronto-born bisexual Wayne Lonergan’s 1943 murder of his wife — who was also his former sugar daddy’s daughter — was inspiration for the film-noir thriller The Big Clock.

Illustration by Eric Williams

6.  After the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia regularly attended spanking parties in London that were held by a German named Jack Bilbo.

Illustration by Eric Williams

7.  In part because Chinese culture was thought to be rife with homosexuality, the Canadian government imposed prohibitive immigration fees on Chinese immigrants. In 1923, immigration from China was banned altogether.

Illustration by Yigi Chang

8.  Published during the First World War, Canada’s first gay and lesbian publication, Les Mouches Fantastiques, earned the disapproval of horror writer HP Lovecraft.

Illustration by Eric Williams

9.  Born in 1902, Mabel Hampton was a black, lesbian activist who marched in the first demonstration for gay rights in Washington and every New York City Pride parade that occurred in her lifetime.

Illustration by Eric Williams

10.  In the 1920s, jazz musician Bessie Smith, herself a bisexual, frequented a private club in Detroit populated primarily by “faggots and bulldykers.” Her favourite stage show involved a heavy-set woman’s vagina and a lit cigarette.

Illustration by Yigi Chang

11.  It was only at his death in 1901 that 70-year-old Murray Hall, a New York City politician, was discovered to have been assigned female at birth.

Illustration by Eric Williams

12.  We probably wouldn’t think of Oscar Wilde as a martyr for gay rights if not for the efforts of his close friend Robbie Ross, grandson of Robert Baldwin, chief architect of “responsible government” in Canada.  

Illustration by Eric Williams

13.  In 1873, French poet Paul Verlaine shot his lover Arthur Rimbaud — the subject of Patti Smith’s song “Easter” — in the wrist.

Illustration by Eric Williams

14.  The mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Mermaid is most likely meant to be Andersen himself; the prince being a man with whom he was infatuated.

Illustration by Eric Williams

15.  Anne Lister (1791–1840) is known for writing about her lesbian experiences in code in her diaries. For instance, “kiss” meant orgasm, “connection with the ladies” meant lesbianism and “going to Italy” meant sex.

Illustration by Eric Williams

16.  Medici grand duke Gian Gastone — whose failure to produce an heir ended the Medici reign in Italy when he died in 1737 — had an entourage of boys he paid for sex. They were known as Ruspanti, named for the ruspi (coins) they were paid.

Illustration by Sissydude

17.  Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun, wrote passionate, erotic poems to other women.

Illustration by Jori Bolton

18.  Born 1670, Julie d’Aubigny was a French opera singer and sword fighter who dressed in male clothing. She once danced with and kissed a woman at a court ball. After humiliating the woman’s affronted suitors in a sword fight, she was chastised by the king personally.

Illustration by Jori Bolton

19.  In early 17th-century Japan, Onnagata (male kabuki actors) doubled as prostitutes and were rented out to both male and female clients.

Illustration by Jori Bolton

20.  Born 1626, Swedish queen Christina may have been intersex, and certainly lived like a man; she swore, wore a sword and probably slept with women.

Illustration by Jori Bolton

21.  Possibly going back as far as the 16th century, some homosexuals spoke a secret language called Polari, where, for example, “zhoosh” meant showy and “dilly boy” meant male prostitute.

Illustration by Sissydude

22.  In 1600, 15-year-old Catalina de Erauso escaped from a convent in Spain, disguised herself as a boy, and sailed to South America where her exploits — killing, gambling and being offered wives — made her a folk hero.

Illustration by Sissydude

23.  Leonardo di Vinci seems to have been erotically fixated on an errand boy he took into his service in 1490. His nickname for the boy was salaì, which was slang for devil, demon or unclean one.

Illustration by Eric Williams

24.  Early 11th-century Islamic conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni (the first ruler to carry the title “sultan”) made Ayaz, a male slave he adored, the king of Lahore, a city in modern day Pakistan.

Illustration by Eric Williams

25.  Jesus Christ may have been gay.

(Editor’s note: This post has been clarified to explain that some witnesses did attempt to intervene in the Kitty Genovese murder)